There are two major concerns voiced by both faculty working at land grant universities and industry folks regarding the intersection of agriculture and higher education.  First, we don’t have enough people graduating with degrees in agricultural fields, especially those with any agricultural experience.  Second, the average age of a farm/ranch operator in the United States is 57.0 years old (www.nass.usda.gov).  We must do something to address the need for professionals educated in agriculture before the professionals currently involved retire.  If the need is not addressed soon there will not be enough people trained to produce, secure, research, or inspect our food supply.

Meanwhile the largest population working in agriculture in the United States is Latino.  As a dairy professional, this is not ground-breaking news.  However, in the United States, the achievement gap (minority graduation rate vs. majority graduation rate with a college degree) is greatest for Latinos.  Fewer Latinos graduate from college than any other ethnic group.  How does this all affect the dairy industry? 

The dairy leaders of tomorrow will be trilingual.  They will speak agriculture, English, and Spanish.  Gone are the days when undergraduate students studying in agricultural fields have a significant tie to production agriculture.  Most students who come to land grant universities to study Agricultural Sciences in the twenty first century no longer have a direct connection to production agriculture or agriculture at all. Yet, we have an extensive talent pool of young people whose parents work on dairies or who work on dairies themselves and very few of them are pursuing college degrees in agriculture.  Why aren’t we engaging them?  Why aren’t we encouraging them to go to college?  Why aren’t we preparing them to lead the industry into the future?  These individuals are already trilingual.  By not tapping into the talent pool, we are currently squandering this resource. 

The luxury of excluding any population from an agricultural education, especially given the importance of agriculture to the success of our country, does not exist.  We need to educate those who have traditionally come to us (students from family operations), those who are currently coming to us (students from urban and suburban backgrounds), and those who have worked in agriculture in the U.S. for a long time but have been absent from higher education classrooms: Latinos.  The following is a list of recommendations to address this situation:

  • Engage with your local institution of higher education.  Ask how you can help them and they can help you.  Offer to speak to student organizations, allow groups to tour your operation, and give advice about how to be successful in the dairy industry.
  • Do a better job of “marketing” agriculture.  What jobs are actually available in the dairy industry?  What are the management opportunities?  Do you really have to shovel manure the rest of your life if you work in agriculture?  What about food safety?  Zoonotic diseases?  Agricultural law (would you like to see a lawyer who understands your operation)? Commodity trading?  Few people have any idea of the real opportunities in agriculture.  Those who do know about the opportunities for an agricultural profession are not currently sharing that information with the next generation.
  • Educate those already working in agriculture in cross culture communication. 
  • To develop innovative and ethical solutions to the problems facing modern agriculture we need the input of everyone involved.  In the words of Margaret Wheatley, a leadership theorist, “We need to be constantly asking: ‘Who else should be here?  Who else should be looking at this?’”  In agriculture I think that means including the people who have been doing agricultural labor in the United States for over a century in the conversation; it means recruiting and retaining Latinos in agricultural higher education.
  • Promote industry partnerships to help provide scholarships and internship opportunities for students who haven’t traditionally been a part of the educated agriculture pipeline.

The dairy industry is positioned to lead other agricultural industries through the intersection of higher education and agriculture.  You could help all of us deal with the question of who will lead agriculture in the future.  The real question is, will you?

Shannon Archibeque-Engle is an undergraduate advisor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University.